The Atrocity Archives
by Charles Stross
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
It’s amazing what a fresh and entertaining read The Atrocity Archives is, because when you come down to it, author Charles Stross hasn’t really created anything fundamentally new. His is a world we’ve seen in varying incarnations, where magical forces are governed by mathematical precepts. There are still rites and rituals and human sacrifices, but they have a scientific basis, and the supposed demons once conjured up by necromancers are now recognized as extra-dimensional beings. That’s not to say that these beings won’t still hurt you or possess you or try to eat you, but they can also be corralled and used if you have the proper cabalistic safeguards in place.
Ensuring these safeguards is Bob Howard, who works for the super-secret British intelligence agency the Laundry. Bob was conscripted into the Laundry when his computer programming skills proved to be a bit too advanced for comfort. As he says in the book:
“As they later pointed out to me, applied computational demonology and built-up areas don’t mix very well. I thought I was just generating weird new fractals; they knew I was dangerously close to landscaping Wolverhampton with alien nightmares.”
After years of dreary work as a Laundry IS tech, Bob has been approved for active duty in the Counter-Possession Unit. His first field assignment brings him to America, where he has to make contact with a British ex-patriot professor working in California, and find out why the U.S. government won’t let her leave the country. But what begins as a simple fact-gathering mission becomes more complicated when said professor is kidnapped by a Middle Eastern terrorist cell working magic of a dangerous magnitude—magic of a kind last seen used by the Third Reich during the Second World War.
Part horror, part spy thriller and liberally peppered with wry English humor, The Atrocity Archives pulls off the neat trick of being at once complex and breezy. The story is detailed and multilayered, with plenty of obscure references and advanced tech-talk. But for all that, it never looses its sense of immediacy or accessibility. Whether Stross is writing for laughs, shock or thrills, his prose is always pitch-perfect.
This is especially true when it comes to Stross’s depiction of the inner-workings of the Laundry. Where you often see the spy portrayed as a roguish outsider, Bob Howard presents a more realistic vision of the life of a secret government operative. Bureaucracy is endemic to all government agencies, covert or otherwise, and Stross captures it, in all of its mind-numbing minutia—the obsessive bean counting, the endless paperwork, the office politics (which can become particularly grisly in the Laundry). In these respects, Bob could just as easily be working for the DMV as for a super-secret organization protecting the world from phantom threats.
Finding humor in the banality of office life is nothing new to those in the Dilbert-reading cubicle set; magic, zombies and alternative realities are stock in trade workhorses of genre fiction. Yet Stross melds these familiar (some might even say clichéd) elements to create something wholly unique. The Atrocity Archives is a smart and clever book brimming with interesting characters, humor, creativity, and weird, intelligent fun.
Now this from the It-Shouldn’t-Matter-But-It-Does Department: I know we’re all avid readers and we never judge books by their covers, but sometimes it’s hard not to.
Take a look at the beautiful cover for the original Golden Gryphon edition of The Atrocity Archives. It appears abstract at first glance, but it perfectly captures the spirit of the book—shadowy constructs and obscure machinations conspiring to open doors to the unknown.
Now take a look at the mess ACE worked up for the trade paperback edition. This so-called cover art has no art whatsoever. Stross’s clever irony and wry humor are reduced to a dumb sight gag, apparently designed to lure readers hungry for a supernaturally tacky episode of The Office.
Things like this always bother me, but especially so in this case. Golden Gryphon is a small press and you normally don’t see their books in stores. And since most people don’t obsessively troll the Internet like I do in search of the latest specialty house offerings, it’s the mass-market ACE cover that will form the impressions of casual bookstore browsers. If that cover was all I had to go by, I’d probably have passed on The Atrocity Archives, which would have been a shame. I wonder how many potential readers Stross may have lost because of this.
Dumb covers are a disservice to writers and readers alike.